Lydia Suffield
October 17, 2015 4:18 pm

“You should take it as a compliment” was the advice of one person I spoke to, about a boy who continually leaned against me, who kept trying to put his hands on my shoulders, even when I pulled away. “I mean, he’s probably just feeling awkward around you.” Like feeling awkward excused someone who kept trying to hug me even when I physically stepped back.

But I was told I should take it as a compliment — the same way too many girls and women are expected to take it as a compliment. We should be flattered when men think we’re pretty; we should be happier still if they say we’re pretty, if a tragically large amount of people are to be believed. That’s why Charlotte Proudman speaking openly and honestly about the sexism she has experienced has been so important for me personally, and also for women in general.

For those who don’t know the full details, Charlotte is a British barrister who posted on Twitter an email sent to her by a senior solicitor through her LinkedIn page — a message with the rather revealing title PICTURE which included lines such as:

Charlotte, understandably, was infuriated at her physical appearance apparently being the focus of attention (rather than her professional skills — especially on a professional networking site like LinkedIn), and sent him a message back expressing her disapproval, which included the line:

This then promptly ignited debate and Charlotte’s tweet of the incident went viral. While many people have been quick to support her, holding up the message she was sent as a blatant example of sexism and highly-unprofessional behavior, she’s also faced horrific, sexist and vicious abuse online, including people claiming that she can’t take a compliment and that she should be flattered. Several have insisted that we live in “a sad world” when men can’t give a woman a compliment. The entire thing made me wince — it reminded me all too clearly of just how deeply entrenched sexism is in our society, that these people couldn’t see just how demeaning these kind of comments were. Charlotte was sent the message on a site that is focused on professionalism, on connecting people with one another for professional reasons. The very fact that someone thought it appropriate to make her physical appearance their priority clearly demonstrates the very real sexism that is ingrained in our society — no one should even need to explain the disturbing implications of the idea that the first thing that should be noticed about a woman is her physical appearance. (The solicitor in question claims he was referring to “the professional quality of the photo.”) Even putting aside the fact that this message was from a married man and was sent in what was supposed to be a professional arena, it cannot be denied that almost the entirety of the message (bar one line at the end) was focused on a woman’s image. That alone sets a dangerous precedent. But it was another line that stood out as a highlight for me. In her message back to the solicitor, Charlotte wrote:

This is the line I would want to hand back to every person — of any gender — who claims that women should “take things as a compliment.” I am not arguing that all men who compliment women are doing so with nefarious intentions. I have no doubt that some of them may genuinely want to give a compliment. In a personal setting, with good intentions, giving a compliment is obviously perfectly acceptable. But this was in a professional setting and served to highlight the lack of awareness of the inherent misogyny internalized by many men. Why isn’t it just as common to compliment a woman on her mind? Her intellect? Her wit? Why is it that the first thing that comes to mind for so many men as a potential compliment for a woman is her physical appearance? But more than that, I wonder if these people who argue that it’s “just a compliment” have any idea how threatening this can feel. I hope most men who give these compliments would be horrified at the idea that they have caused a woman fear or discomfort. I hope that they would be sincere in their intentions. But sadly, that clearly isn’t the case for many. “Just a compliment” can feel threatening. “Just a compliment” can feel intimidating. “Just a compliment” can make a woman feel powerless. When I was younger, I knew a boy who I liked as a friend and certainly got on with, but didn’t have any interest in romantically. However, he seemed to be interested in more than friendship. At first, I tried to laugh it off, telling my friends about it jokingly, trying to downplay the whole situation. I told myself I was being oversensitive when he leaned against me for too long, no matter how much I tried to lean away from him. I told myself it was me who had the problem when I stepped back from him attempting to hug me and he just did it again, laughing the whole time even when I told him to stop. To an extent, I feel guilty writing this. Because a part of me still feels it was my fault. Even though what happened wasn’t too serious and I doubt this boy intended to cause me discomfort, it still bothers me even now. And a part of me feels guilty about that. Because there is a subversive message in our society that women should be grateful for male attention. That we should be thankful when someone expresses attraction, even if we don’t return it. That we should “take it as a compliment.” If those people say that women like Charlotte, women like me, women like every other woman in the world should be flattered by unwanted male attention, they should try being in our position. They should try feeling that prickling sensation of anxiety, that sickness in your stomach every time someone rests his hand on your shoulder and tries to let it slip down lower, even when you’re trying to pull away. They should try feeling that sense of paralysing oh-my-god-get-away-from-me-what-if-he-tries-something-he’s-stronger-what’s-going-to-happen-help-help-help that floods through you when you’re in a club and someone grabs hold of you, presses himself against you and won’t let go, even when you try to pull away. They should try feeling the constant niggling worry, being pulled back and forth between whether you’re making too much of something and whether you’re right to feel so frightened, so repulsed, by someone constantly making comments about your body, someone pressing their cheek against yours, someone constantly invading your personal space. No one should have to put up with this. This kind of misogyny is what makes women feel powerless. Powerless against all the stereotypical assumptions that women have fought against for decades. Powerless against the inherent, sexist differences between the common treatment of the genders in the workplace. Powerless against speaking up — because then you’re vilified. Charlotte Proudman has started a debate and in doing so, she says she “may have committed career suicide.” I hope desperately that it has not ruined her career, because we need more people like her, especially in the legal profession. In the midst of all the comments, she tweeted:

In that goal, she’s succeeded, because she reminded me that I don’t have to feel guilty. That we don’t have to feel guilty for not crawling for compliments. That we don’t have to feel guilty for not wanting someone in our personal space. That we don’t have to feel guilty — we have nothing to feel guilty about — for being offended when our appearances are prioritized over our capabilities. When we are objectified, knowingly or unknowingly. We don’t have to feel guilty and we don’t have to stay quiet. We don’t have to feel powerless. We can speak up. We can and are speaking up, the same way Charlotte Proudman did — and that is one of the best ways of taking back the power.

(Image via Twitter.) 

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